By melting low-fat cheese over your egg whites, spreading margarine on “light” bread, using plant-based crumbles instead of turkey or tofu in your tacos, and powering up with plant-based energy drinks instead of coffee, you may think you’re making healthy choices. But, according to registered dietitians, some of these so-called “healthy” foods might not actually be a better option.
In some cases, you might be missing out on important nutrients. In others, some of these “healthy” products are more processed and may contain additives that, at best, aren’t offering any legitimate health benefits. At worst, the products may have some potential health consequences. Another consideration that should be a priority when it comes to food: enjoyment.
Read on to hear which “healthy” foods registered dietitians recommend you skip and what to choose instead.
If it’s been a few decades since you put full-fat cheese in your shopping cart, it might be time to add it back in. One big reason not to fear the fat in dairy is that fat actually helps with the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients found in milk, such as vitamins A and D. Dietary fat also helps support blood sugar stability, which is key for staying full, focused, and energized. If you’re avoiding fat in dairy with heart health in mind, rest easy. Multiple studies have also shown that full-fat dairy consumed in moderation was not linked to increased mortality from cardiovascular disease and in some cases may possibly even be protective.
Jessica Beacom, RDN and co-founder of The Real Food Dietitians, says, “Skip [low-fat cheeses] if you want your cheese to melt. Fat-free and low-fat cheese is made by removing the milk fat, resulting in a product that is often drier and more crumbly than full-fat cheese. The flavor and mouthfeel will also be a bit different.” If you’re looking to lower your overall fat intake, she recommends, “consider using less of a more flavorful cheese like extra sharp cheddar instead of a low-fat or fat-free version.”
Contrary to popular belief, margarine is not always better than butter. “While margarine does contain approximately 70% less saturated fat than butter,” says Beacom, “they both contain about the same amount of total fat. Margarine contains 11 grams of fat per tablespoon compared to butter which has 12 grams which is not a significant difference in the context of the overall diet when consumed in moderation.” She also mentions that butter, unlike margarine, has a short ingredient list, so if you’re interested in eating a less processed diet, butter may be a better choice.
If you don’t like butter or are lactose intolerant or vegan, olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil are all good substitutes for cooking or baking. As a spread, olive oil is delicious on toast or stirred into vegetable or grain dishes. Olive oil and avocado oil are both low in saturated fat and high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids.
Plant-Based Energy Drinks
Just because something is ‘plant-based’ doesn’t mean it’s automatically a healthy choice. You still have to watch out for caffeine, added sugar, and unregulated herbal ingredients that could potentially interact with medications.
Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert and co-author of Sugar Shock, cautions that, while they may sound more wholesome, plant-based energy drinks can still be heavily processed “and tend to have some mix of added sugars or sugar substitutes.” She explains, “There’s no magic to their energy-boosting effects—they contain caffeine just like coffee and tea. However, coffee and tea are natural plant foods that provide antioxidants and other health-promoting substances in addition to the caffeine they provide.”
Her recommendation: “I’d skip these drinks and pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea instead. If coffee is too much of a jolt, have tea or matcha. Green tea and matcha have around 35 milligrams of caffeine, black tea has about 50 milligrams, and coffee has at least 100 milligrams. Plus, the combo of substances in green tea and matcha–including caffeine and l-theanine–produces a calming effect while enhancing thinking skills.”
Fake Meat Products
If you’re going meatless for reasons related to health, religion, environmental concerns, or taste preference, totally cool. There are tons of benefits to incorporating more plants into your diet. However, from a health perspective, you want to choose your plant proteins mindfully.
Many of the “fake meat” products on the market come with high sodium content. And, because many products use soy protein isolate or pea protein isolate, some of the nutrients are missing from those foods. Using soy as an example, while we know that soy in its whole form offers some protective health benefits, it seems that protection is lost when the protein is extracted from the plant and then added to a food with low nutritional value.
Cassetty says, “While meat is a whole food, meat-mimicking products are heavily processed foods that may not be the best thing for you. Within the category, there are varying degrees of processing with some of the imitation meats containing fairly new lab-made ingredients. The best alternative is to make your own plant-based burgers at home using kitchen ingredients, like beans and vegetables.”
If you’re looking for more convenient options, she says, “I recommend meat alternatives made with pea protein concentrate instead of processed soy concentrate or isolate. While whole food forms of soy are linked to a lower risk of cancer, we don’t have a clear understanding of the impact of the heavily processed types of soy used in fake meat products. My favorite burger alternative is Dr. Praeger’s Perfect Burger, which is made with a pea protein derivative and 4 types of veggies. It has 20 grams of protein and just 1 gram of saturated fat.”
“Light” and Sugar-Free Desserts
Beacom says, “While it may be tempting to reach for that no-sugar dessert to feed a craving for something sweet, keep in mind when something is removed from a product, something else needs to be added to take its place. In many cases, fat is added to low-sugar products resulting in a higher calorie product than the ‘original’ it was designed to replace. Sometimes sugar is replaced with lower-calorie sugar alcohols that can cause digestive distress.” Plus, did you know that artificial sweeteners can also enhance sugar cravings?d
Cassetty adds, “While [the zero-calorie sugar substitutes often used in sugar-free products] seem like freebies, they aren’t necessarily healthy. There isn’t good evidence that these sugar substitutes help you manage weight or blood sugar over time. This is why the WHO advises against these sweeteners for long-term weight control and disease prevention.”
Instead of relying on these sweeteners, she suggests, “Try making a lower-sugar treat using naturally sweet fruit. For example, sliced, frozen bananas and dates are delicious with nut butter and chocolate chips on top. Unlike sugar-free desserts, these foods supply valuable nutrients like fiber, potassium, and magnesium. If you’re watching your blood sugar levels, just be sure to tally the carbohydrate content in your entire meal or snack.”
There’s also a behavioral component to consider with the sugar-free, lower-calorie desserts. In the case of low or no-sugar or lower-calorie desserts, it’s easy to fall into the trap of eating more and conditioning yourself to overeat. Ever found your spoon scraping the bottom of a pint of Halo Top, again?
Beacom says, “It’s often better to choose a smaller portion of ice cream or cookie than the lower calorie versions because they are more satisfying making it less likely that you will overconsume them when eaten mindfully.”
Fat-Free Bottled Salad Dressing
One of the healthiest swaps you can make is to ditch fat-free salad dressing and reach for olive oil, which contains heart-healthy fats and antioxidants. Beacom says, “Fat not only improves the flavor of whatever you are eating, in this case, it can help improve the absorption of important nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. For this reason, a little fat (especially healthful fats like olive oil) is a good idea if you’re looking to maximize taste and nutrition.”
To make the fat-free stuff taste good, says Cassetty, “the oils may be replaced with more sugar or a sugar substitute. When you get used to sweeter versions of savory foods, it can contribute to your sugar cravings and make it harder to accept healthier foods like plain water, fruits, and vegetables. Plus, fat-free dressings may have other additives, such as gums and starches, to improve the texture.”
In addition to buying or making a full-fat dressing that you enjoy, Cassetty also recommends seasoning your salad to “make your veggies appetizing and enticing.” This means adding herbs and spices, as well as salt and pepper, or various dips and dressings.
It’s super-easy to make your own dressing. Use olive oil or avocado oil and add lemon juice or vinegar, plus your favorite spices or some Dijon mustard. If creamy dressing is your thing, use plain yogurt as a base and add spices for flavor.
Granola bars may sound super wholesome, but many brands are high in sugar and offer virtually no protein. This is bad news for blood sugar management.
Cassetty says, “It’s fine to enjoy a granola bar for a convenient snack sometimes, but there are plenty of other portable, convenient snacks like bananas, apples, unsweetened dried fruit, and nuts, that offer more satiety and nutrition. Granola bars are among the leading sources of added sugar in our diets, but the sugar content varies widely. I’ve seen granola bars with more added sugar than a fun-size candy bar.”
However, for those times when you’re on the go all day or traveling, it’s hard to beat the convenience of a bar. Cassetty recommends, “Compare labels to find bars with low- or no-added sugar and watch for sugar substitutes, too. The goal is to choose a bar with whole food ingredients and a tame amount of added sugar.” An even better option would be to choose a product that offers protein from a minimally processed source like nuts or seeds.
The bottom line is: No food ever needs to be truly off-limits (unless you’re allergic). However, eating substitute foods just because they seem ‘healthier’ isn’t necessarily a great option for your health. Eating foods that don’t taste good just because the label says they’re healthy is not serving well-being in the long run.